We all receive an inbox full of donation requests this time of year from candidates running for office, but how often do they reach out with a personal call? When “Eddie Rodriguez” showed up on my phone this week, I expected a robo call or at best a campaign volunteer. The voice on the other end was, indeed, the state legislator who had done more than any other in the past decade to help small Texas farmers.
Nine years ago this week, Rodriguez led a bi-partisan “farm-to-table” caucus that filed six bills in the Texas Legislature benefitting small family and urban farms like Green Gate. One of those bills took me to the state capital on two occasions to testify how agricultural exemption rules in Texas work against small farms, especially if they are organic and grow vegetables instead of conventional commodity crops and cattle.
"The bills filed today are the first step toward updating our outdated laws. We want to ensure a successful future for the small farmers and producers all across Texas, and improve access to nutritious local foods," Rodriguez said in 2013. “For many, food means freedom. And we must make sure we lower the barriers to that freedom.”
Rodriguez’s commitment to local food was the force behind one of those original six bills becoming law. Known as a ‘cottage” bill — cottage as in a small home — it gives food artisans more leeway in producing and selling their homemade products.
Taking on ag exemption laws has been a harder nut to crack. With few exceptions, plots of land under 10 acres can’t qualify for agricultural valuation in Texas. Why 10 and not 5? Why acres in production rather than dollars produced? This is cattle country so laws are not written with small vegetable farmers in mind. Even so, an acre in vegetables can produce far more income than 10 acres in cattle. (And with far more expenses - from labor and to expensive city water — to produce that income.)
By implementing a small minimum acreage requirement, the Food Caucus bill would have protected small farms from being disqualified by appraisal districts based solely on their size. That difference in taxes can as much as a factor of 10. Opponents of the bill — including the powerful home builder associations —projected millions in property tax losses when hundreds of homeowners began digging up their back yards to grow vegetables for profit ($5,000 is the minimum income needed to qualify for ag exemption). Developers know what it takes to work with dirt but you need a lot more than a BobCat to turn dirt into soil and vegetables into money.
Nine years later, Austin and Travis County property taxes have increased dramatically while productive farmland continues to shrink at alarming rates*. As for the number of legitimate local “farms” — urban or otherwise —the number also has declined. One of the biggest barriers is the requirement that more than half of their income must come from agriculture to keep that ag exemption. Is it any wonder more than 90% of farmers in this country rely on off-farm jobs?
Meanwhile, farmers are pushed farther away from their customers. The “food means freedom” mantra is a cruel joke. Far from freedom, economic or otherwise, farmers are often held hostage in their trucks, wasting precious hours and expensive fuel stuck in traffic on “Farm to Market” roads, roads that are increasing clogged by commuters and gravel trucks barreling into town.
If I have unfairly singled out developers and aggregate miners, consider this slap-in-your-face fact. Acres of prime agriculture land in Central Texas is being lost to mining, second only to development. And what happens in Texas to those grand canyons no longer capable of growing food? In county after county, records show they remain taxed at their former agricultural exemption rates rather than, as legislation supposedly requires, they come under the higher “commercial or mining” designation. That means a mining operation destroying Texans prime farmland is more likely to be taxed at an agricultural rate than a farmer growing food for their neighbors!
Selfishly, I wish Rodriguez would remain a leader for local food here and keep pushing reform at the state level. At the same time, having a local food advocate pushing for much-needed land use reform at the federal level can potentially accomplish change for the country as a whole. One would have hoped that seeing lines of people at empty shelves at grocery stores this time last year would have prompted more support for local food. Even Texas ag commissioner Sid Miller, a dedicated climate denier, admitted our the food system broken. If so, the first place to start is putting farm land protection at least on par with development and mining interests. You can grow cities with dirt and sand but you need soil and farmers to feed them.
(*See Texas Farmland is the Most Threatened in the Nation,